A Dirty Word or Good News?

by Liz Mosbo VerHage | December 05, 2007
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I used to feel like I needed to apologize for being evangelical. 

Before I understood enough to describe this nebulous label very well, I would feel the need to begin by offering clarifying statements, like, “Don’t worry, not the kind of evangelicals you see on TV,” or “You know, evangelical as in someone who believes in Jesus and cares about serving others?” I often got confused looks in return and more than a few raised eyebrows. It seemed that for many, ‘evangelical’ was a dirty word.    

I later learned that common conceptions of ‘evangelical’ were shaped by memories of fire and brimstone pre-millennial tent revivals, or perpetuated by negative caricatures of tele-evangelists or mega-church sales gimmicks asking for money. I had indeed been exposed to some of these influences (which I would call outlying forces), within my church tradition, but assumed that I could easily explain, theologize, or re-frame the conversation enough to show others that we aren’t really about those things. Evangelical Christians are more than this — aren’t we? 

Some scholars have suggested that the term ‘evangelical’ is best used today as a descriptive term that points to an ethos, or spirit that unites its diverse and shifting members across the church spectrum. In his book Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, prolific evangelical author Alister McGrath defines the spirit of evangelicalism as an atmosphere that is highly devotional and may be heralded wherever people hold the basic beliefs that individuals must experience the gospel personally, define that gospel biblically, and want to communicate that relationship with others (see pgs. 55–59). But the general perception of ‘evangelical,’ and of ‘Christian,’ is becoming increasingly negative among some very important people.  

Researchers from The Barna Group recently published an article on their website (barna.org) entitled, “A New Generation Expresses Its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity.” They report that young people — both Christians and non-Christians — are “more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago.” The article shares findings that North America’s emerging generation, defined as 16–29 year olds, often see Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, and old-fashioned. The most frequently cited phrases this generation uses to describe their views (roughly one fourth of respondents cited each of these phrases), are, “Christianity is changed from what it used to be” and “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” 

Most young people report that their negative perceptions were based on more than just misinformation or generic feelings — they were the result of specific encounters or experiences with Christians and/or the church. I wonder how many young people are confused by experiences in churches that don’t seem to value the leadership and gifts of both women and men, or that don’t welcome and learn from diverse ethnicities, when these values seem to be solidly part of Jesus’ ministry.   

Notice that many of the critiques found in this study have prophetic overtones; the emerging generation is voicing their frustration that in their experience, the church isn’t living up to the standards that it teaches about Jesus. They’re disappointed with Christians who are not practicing what they preach. If our next wave of leaders and shapers of the church (and of the world), increase their exodus from the church, who will narrate God’s story in tomorrow’s systems and structures, families and societies? 

Since the time of Acts, the church has been given the task of recognizing and participating in the ways God is at work on this changing, complex planet. Our ecclesial vocation is not to market, dumb down, or compromise the Gospel, but simply to live it — to be enflamed and animated by it, and let it be seen through our lives as the attractive, though costly, good news that it is. How can those who hold to commitments that are defined as evangelical help close this gap the emerging generation sees between what some churches looks like and what Jesus taught? 

Roughly 2000 years ago, a young (emerging?) Jewish man rose to read from the scrolls of the prophets in the temple. In his first ‘sermon,’ Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to “bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19 nrsv). With these and other fiery assertions, Jesus aligned himself with the prophetic teachings that right worship equals right and just living. 

Justice, or being justified and righteous in the sight of the Lord, is an assumed part of the disciple’s task and the church’s witness. This means that the body of Christ worships Sunday morning as a community, and we advocate for those without housing who sleep outside our church doors. We send missionaries around the globe to preach good news, and we send doctors and teachers to the inner city to work with the suffering. We teach confirmation and hold choir practices, and we repent and stand up against the sinful evils of racism, sexism, and violence that pervade structures in our society. The church today must awaken to the foolishness of false dichotomies between evangelism or justice, worship or activism, prayer or compassion. 

Along with the Old Testament prophet Micah, we know that true worship involves true justice (Micah 6:6–8); echoing the New Testament apostle James, we affirm that true religion is not about showy displays, but godly humility and looking after widows and orphans (James 1:27). We love God with all of who we are (heart, soul, mind, and strength) and we love our neighbor with a costly and true love. 

As ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has famously said, the church does not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic. The church is not a politically correct to-do list, or a development proposal to increase program effectiveness, or a ‘social gospel-esque’ plan to save the world on our own; it is a living, God-breathed ethic. A lifestyle marked by biblical justice, mercy, and advocacy, following the tradition of Isaiah and Micah, Amos and Esther, Miriam and Moses, Luke and James, and Jesus himself. 

Here we can be encouraged that it is not all bad news when it comes to the church’s activity with emerging generations. The good news (in this sense), is that many young people are often quick to understand biblical justice, even if they are skeptical of Christianity or the church. Something about the embodied, unselfish, and sometimes messy nature of serving and advocating for poor and vulnerable people smacks of authenticity to many young people; it backs up what they think Jesus would do. Some freshman students in my Introduction to the Bible class describe themselves as ‘recovering Christians’ or ‘lapsed church goers who still love Jesus’ in assignments, but easily sign up for international service trips, work with Habitat for Humanity, and accept environmental stewardship as an obvious Christian task. 

Many Christian non-profits are finding a swell of commitment in the emerging generations. Justice groups like Sojourners, Bread for the World, and Micah Challenge all have relatively new ‘emerging leader’ specific events, training, and recruitment as a focused part of their conferences and advocacy work. Emerging leaders (like Shane Claiborne and Mpho Tutu), are increasingly heading up justice-oriented ministries and prophetically teaching the rest of the church about justice and faithfulness. Some denominations are finding great reward in focusing on emerging leaders within their church body. For example, in The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) a growing number of people in the emerging generation have formed a movement called “Justice Seekers.” This group engages in advocacy, starts ministries, and connects faith with social justice throughout their denomination.      

A few of us within my church tradition, The Evangelical Covenant Church, founded “The Young Pietists” three years ago. We’re committed to renewing the church through biblical justice, encouraging holistic discipleship, and motivating young leaders to stay within the church to do this work. Our church roots come from the Swedish Mission Friends, a group influenced by renewal movements in Europe. They were convinced that just as the Protestant Reformation had breathed new life into state churches, pietism was now needed to connect belief to action, and internal devotion to social justice. Our “Young Pietists” group talks about theology and ministry, shares sermons and poetry, writes resolutions for the denomination and articles on our Pietist history, supports and resources other just-minded efforts, and encourages action from within congregations. We also strive to intentionally lift up the voices of men and women from various ethnic backgrounds within our church family; anything less would negate our efforts to fully embody good news.  

Sometimes we joke that it’s our church’s fault that we started this little cohort; we grew up being shaped by a community that told us that our beliefs translate into faithful living, and that our individual commitment to following Christ is part of a communal body’s journey. So we educate and challenge each other on issues like biblical justice, the environment, worship, racial righteousness, the missional church, and evangelism. Our values of justice, authenticity, relationship, history, and hope unite many of us from wide-ranging backgrounds together. 

Robert Webber’s research seems to agree with what our ‘emerging justice experiment’ has found. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals points out characteristics of what he calls emerging evangelicals, the generation born after 1975. Younger evangelicals recognize that the road to the future runs through the past; are primarily committed to the plight of the poor, especially in urban centers; communicate through stories and are part of communities; are highly committed to multicultural faith communities; demand authenticity; and realize unity between thought and action (see pg. 54). Webber’s good news for the church is that many younger Christians are already committed to living out the Gospel in an authentic, just, communal, connected-to-history way — answering the emerging generation’s critiques of hypocrisy and in-authenticity in the church.

What if instead of leaving the church, or leaving labels like ‘evangelical’ that have grown dingy with misuse, we renew the church from within and reclaim the name that truly means good news? Our evangelical heritage includes many examples of Christians who have worked within the churches they love, forming movements that renew, re-center, and reclaim God’s call so that we can remember how to be church. This is now our call, challenge, and exciting inheritance as emerging, younger Christians. We may be the next ones in the long history of faithful, servant-hearted disciples that do our part to remember the story, retell it in our context, and experience our own need for good news and just living as we are with and for the poor. 

I am convinced that a major dynamic of the future, spirit-filled, faithful church in North America will be defined by our commitment to biblical justice. I hear the cries from those hungry for an embodied, holistic, just faith around me almost daily. I agree with the prophetic moans and calls for more movement presently being asked of the church. I am intoxicated by the aroma of Christ emanating from individuals and communities that already faithfully witness good news to the poor and to the world. And I see God moving and redeeming creation in both the small crevices and gaping holes of our world all the time. What good news — we are invited to be part of the journey! Amen.